Curtains for the Ba'ath

Curtains for the Ba'ath

Mini Teaser: The Ba'athi regime of Iraq has got to go, and the United States needs to force the issue before it is too late.

by Author(s): Michael Eisenstadt

EVEN BEFORE September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration faced difficult challenges and choices as it charted U.S. policy toward Iraq. The period of Iraqi quiescence following Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 was clearly over, the containment regime on Iraq had weakened, and the resurgence of Israeli-Palestinian violence had imposed constraints on Washington's diplomatic leeway while creating new trouble-making opportunities for Baghdad. Sensing that momentum was on his side, Saddam Hussein seemed increasingly self-confident and assertive.

From the outset, most of President Bush's senior foreign policy advisors seemed to favor "regime change" over the continued "containment" of Iraq. Yet, a State Department-led effort to bolster containment and to steal a march on the proponents of regime change by "smartening" sanctions--well before the new administration's Iraq policy review was completed--suggested deep divisions in the Bush team. Though the smart sanctions effort failed due to a threatened Russian veto that was, somehow, not anticipated by the State Department, the administration's Iraq policy review still had not been completed before September 11.

The events of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax incidents should have been transformational events. They should have highlighted the dangers of "business as usual" in an age of sophisticated terrorism and weapons proliferation, and the potentially high costs of ignoring the likes of Osama bin Laden and rogue regimes such as that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, regarding Iraq, all signs indicate the contrary. The old arguments continue, albeit in slightly different form, inside the administration and out, about whether, when and how to deal with Saddam Hussein and his regime. 

Some believe that Iraq is connected to the events of September 11 or to the anthrax terror campaign that followed, and that these events make regime change more important and urgent than ever. Some believe that Iraq's relation to September 11 is irrelevant, that its enormous potential to harm America makes the status quo intolerably dangerous, and that after September 11, more people recognize this. But others argue that attacking Iraq, even if it was complicit in the September 11 events, would alienate Arabs and Muslims whose support is vital to the ongoing campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. For this reason, they argue, containment will have to do for now--if not for the indefinite future as well.

The future of containment, however, is increasingly uncertain. Weapons inspections have not occurred in Iraq since 1998, and sanctions--a central pillar of containment--have eroded significantly, and will continue to do so. Furthermore, experience has shown that deterrence is an inadequate policy instrument vis-a-vis Iraq. Sooner or later Saddam's ambitions will bump up against U.S. interests, and he will again miscalculate in such a way as to generate conflict with the United States. Thus, while containment can limit Baghdad's trouble-making potential, it cannot stop Iraq from stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or prevent further U.S.-Iraqi confrontations. And as long as Baghdad possesses chemical, biological and--perhaps in the future--nuclear weapons, a confrontation with a neighboring state or the United States could lead to their use. For this reason, the longer that hard decisions are delayed, the greater the potential costs of a future confrontation. It is simply too risky for the United S tates not to take bold steps to prevent such an eventuality. The case for regime change is more compelling now than ever before--even if it is not clear that the international environment is more supportive of it.

The shortcomings of containment go beyond questions of sustainability, or the risks of complacency. Containment requires an onerous forward U.S. military presence in the region that is clearly counterproductive politically for the United States. And to the degree that sanctions contribute to a sense of Arab/Muslim grievance against the United States and the West, containment stokes political extremism in Iraq and beyond.

Another drawback of containment is that by its very nature it is a preventive rather than a constructive policy; it does not hold out the possibility of a change for the better in Iraq. Regime change, by contrast, offers at least a potential path for a better future for the long-suffering people of Iraq, and for achieving long-term U.S. objectives in the Persian Gulf. It is the key to the emergence of an Iraq that can live in peace with its own people and its neighbors, and to stemming further WMD proliferation in the region. At least at the margins, too, a less troublesome Iraqi regime could make an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation easier to achieve. For all these reasons, the risks associated with containment now outweigh those associated with regime change.1

If the case for regime change is clear, the way forward is not. The debate in Washington about regime change in Iraq has become highly partisan. Most who favor regime change have become disposed to support the "enclaves" strategy of Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Most who favor containment justify their view on the belief that deterrence can work, and that the "enclaves" strategy is unrealistic--as though this were the only path to regime change. The way the debate has been framed has had the effect of placing controversies about personalities and organizations over substantive discussions of means and ends.

In truth, there is no support for the enclaves approach in the region, and Iraqi opposition groups are unlikely anytime soon to be capable of using liberated enclaves in northern or southern Iraq as springboards for offensive operations against Baghdad--with or without U.S. air support. Even if such an approach were to enjoy unexpected success, it probably could not work fast enough to avert the potentially disastrous use of WMD by the Ba'athi regime, should it feel its survival threatened. By nibbling away at its periphery, rather than by landing crushing blows to the nerve centers of the regime, the enclaves approach eschews the type of devastating and decisive American military action that is probably required to unseat Saddam and his regime, without disastrous consequences for innocent Iraqis and the peoples of the region.

Unfortunately, the "containment versus enclaves" structure of the debate over Iraq has obscured the real choices before us. This essay proposes to re-invigorate the debate by offering an alternative approach to regime change. The opposition has a role in it, but so does a significant use of U.S. airpower combined with psychological and economic warfare to create conditions in which a coup or an uprising by domestic opponents of the regime could occur. This alternative is based on several assumptions.

First, regime change offers the possibility of a better future for Iraq-including perhaps a less repressive, more broad-based government--though admittedly, the ultimate outcome of either a coup or uprising cannot be assessed with confidence.

Second, even less desirable outcomes might still offer advantages over the status quo. While a coup that would sweep Saddam, his family and his inner circle from power would still likely lead to an authoritarian military government, the head of such a regime is unlikely to possess the combination of personal attributes that make Saddam and his inner circle so dangerous: extreme ruthlessness, unbounded ambition, a propensity to miscalculate and a burning desire to avenge the Desert Storm defeat. And while a military government might still be wedded to WMD, it could be easier to manage the consequences of proliferation in Iraq with a regime less prone to miscalculation and aggression. Alternatively, while an uprising could result in a loss of central government control over much of Iraq, such an outcome would not necessarily be more harmful for the Iraqi people, the United States and its allies than the status quo--with its potential for an Iraqi nuclear breakout and another regional war. (Indeed, the resident s of northern Iraq have experienced a net improvement in living conditions during the past decade due to the absence of central government control there.)

Third, it may be possible to achieve regime change without the United States and its allies having to occupy Iraq, and undertake a protracted and intrusive nation-building effort.

Finally, the United States will require access to bases and facilities of one or more regional Arab allies (or Turkey), so that it could commit substantial land- and sea-based airpower to the effort. Such support will not be forthcoming without a major diplomatic push, and unless the United States can convince its allies that it is serious about regime change and can show them a credible, carefully considered plan.

What is proposed here is not a sure thing; regime change could ultimately require a Desert Storm II. It is not clear, however, that domestic or international opinion would support a Desert Storm II. The plan outlined below, then, is put forth in the spirit that it is better to pay less than more to achieve the same outcome, and imprudent to ignore the very real political and military constraints on U.S. freedom of action, even when pursuing key U.S. policy objectives.

The Plan

THE SUCCESS of regime change in Iraq will hinge largely on the ability of the United States to harness the potential inherent in four principal policy levers that it holds, but has hitherto failed to effectively employ in concert: 1) military action; 2) psychological operations and propaganda; 3) economic pressure; and 4) support for the opposition. None of these alone can reliably overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein; taken together, however, synergy among them could create the necessary conditions for a coup or popular uprising that could sweep the Ba'ath from power. Let us take these four elements one by one.

Essay Types: Essay